Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When I was 27 - a report to Gunjan

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Gunjan Chaurasia, one of my most sincere & honest students from SIMC, Pune, batch of 2004-06, completed 27 years on 5 April. As a human being, Gunjan is one of the bravest and gentlest persons I know and -- learn from. Because she tastes deep and strong from the springs of life. I promised Gunjan I would share my life with her, when I was 27, and send her a report as a birthday gift.

Since my other rare students also deserve to read this report, I am marking this email to some others too. Please feel free to fwd it to your friends and colleagues, who can (not may) appreciate what I am sharing with Gunjan.

Report to Gunjan - When I was 27.

My dear precious and brave Gunjan,

You are one of my most precious students. I shall always hold you close inside my heart.

I was 33 years old when you were born in 1984. So let me recreate those heady times for you, so that you may more fully appreciate my five Ws and one H -- when I was 27. Though I am telling you my story, Gunjan, writing about it in the present tense, like in a diary or a letter, this is an illusion for, I have the advantage of hindsight. I was not a journalist then; I joined a Pune paper only on 2 May 1983.


I am 27 today, 5 March 1978.

The mynahs and sparrows are chirping under my window. The sun tries to warm me, but my heart is still as cold as the body of my mother, who died nine years ago in 1969.

The Emergency that began in June 1975 ended last year, but even now terrible stories are surfacing of political prisoners, who were brutally tortured by terrorists like Sanjay Gandhi and his goons, under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). Some of them are my dear friends.

We too have suffered our share of miseries. The local leaders in Kasarpimpalgaon (taluka Pathardi, district Ahmednagar, Maharashtra), where we were doing drought relief work since 1973, got emboldened by the terror, unleashed during the Emergency. If it was not for a kind IAS officer, who tipped us off in time, we would have been also arrested.

So our adult literacy work is in a shambles, and abandoned. I can only console myself reading "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" and "Cultural Action for Freedom" by Paolo Friere, whose 'conscientisation' methodology we used in our classes. "Liberation theology" is a new subject for me now.


Let me tell you a little bit about Vistas, the group we formed in 1973, to work in the villages, after we had passed out of St Xavier's College. We were nine or ten young people in our early 20s. As for me, Gunjan, I used to wear flowers in my hair, which I grew to my shoulders, inspired by the protest song, "When you're in San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair."

I could not explain to my father and help him to understand why his brilliant son, a first ranker, and a National Science Talent Scholar, one of only 350 from India in 1969, had chosen to drop out after finishing his B.Sc, and did not continue further studies like his classmates, especially his best friend, Spenta Wadia.

The drought of 1970-71 was one of the severest in the history of Maharashtra. Having stayed in a village for four years, I would not hesitate to call it a 'famine'.

Initially we started with drought relief work, with 'Food for Work' programs, with maize, wheat and milk powder being provided by international funding agencies like Caritas, Casa, Lutheran World Relief, etc. Then we started supplying seeds and fertilisers through Afarm and Afpro. Later we worked with Oxfam on adult literacy and organising youth.

I was mainly inspired by the writings of John Holt, Ivan Illich, Frantz Fanon, Jean Paul Sartre, Will & Ariel Durant, Paolo Friere, etc. I was already influenced by Vatican II and Pope John XXIII, who spoke about Christians standing up for justice and peace as well as the liberation of the poor and the oppressed.

I used to carry a copy of the Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engel. But the only thing I recall was admiration for the beautiful description about the rise of the bourgeosie and the proletariat.

We read feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germaine Greer.

The songs of protest by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, moved us. The names of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were on our trembling lips. With the Beatles, we believed in: "Can't Buy Me Love." We took the slogan "Make Love, Not War" to our hearts and minds.

I was learning to speak Marathi from the illiterate natives, even as I taught them to read and write their mother-tongue.

When we formed Vistas in 1973, I was 22. The world was young and, for me, anything was possible. Still is, dear Gunjan. I was not afraid to stop my studies and go to the villages, where the poor lived. By now, I had decided, on ideological grounds, to get out of the rat race. A topper for years, I discarded competition and its connotation of war, welcoming cooperation among humans as the foundation of peace.


The proclamation of the Emergency in June 1975 by Sonia Gandhi's mother-in-law, the dreadful Indira Gandhi, came as a shock to me. (In 1968, my first year of college, I had been thrilled by her nationalisation of banks and challenge to decaying Congress values.)

I remember, Gunjan, we had taken the morning train from Bombay to Pune. When we reached Pune and saw the newspapers, some of them had blank patches on the front pages. The courageous editors left the columns blank, when the government censors objected. The name of Jayprakash Narayan was like a magic mantra.

Today in 1978, I am 27 and disillusioned. I went hopeful to the villages in 1973. Our raw idealism collapsed in the face of the brutal assault by Sanjay Gandhi. We realised we were soft boys and girls, pampered and spoiled in the cities. Within 20 months, the Emergency (June 1975 – January 1977) made us men and women.

Now my first taste of direct resistance and protest on the streets is in the form of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR). I am working to set up a Centre for Education and Documentation (CED), which will set up a library of clippings for use by activists and journalists.
Three friends become journalists: Ivan Fera, Ayesha Kagal and Chaitanya Kalbag.

Yes, I am disillusioned, Gunjan. But I have not given up and succumbed to the temptations of a comfortable job. I am brave. I struggle and learn.


The rest of my story -- in brief. After 1978, I joined trade union work and organising slum dwellers in Bhandup, Mumbai. Then, we formed the Lok Vidnyan Sanghatana for taking science to the people in 1980. I got married to a Pune girl, Kalpana Joshi, on 26 January 1982. Since you were born in 1984, Gunjan, you could have been my daughter.

Full-time journalism came in 1983. I started teaching journalism in 1987, and at the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication (SIJC) in 1990. After 13 years in Maharashtra Herald, Pune, I left in 1996 and joined to set up the Corporate Communication Dept at Deepak Fertilisers. So, though I disliked it, I did internal PR for seven years. No choice: just a job.

When I came to teach your lovely batch at SIMC in 2004, my dear Gunjan, I had just returned fresh from Goa, where I was editor of Gomantak Times for one year.


I hope you like my birthday gift to you, my dear brave, precious Gunjan. I enjoyed writing it, though I cried when I recalled the trying times. But crying comes before laughter. Just as the winter precedes spring. I see a lot of myself in you, when I was your age. Twenty-seven and in heaven -- daring to build a heaven on earth. A happy life for all, not after but before death.

Happy birthday, Gunjan.

Remember, anything is possible. Dare to dream. Believe in yourself -- my gentle and brave and precious Gunjan.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Pune, Wednesday, 13 April 2011.


  1. sir... its lovely and lively piece to read... thanx to Gunjan who urged you to write this... Sir, I got Zero in ur assignments, I had also cried in ur class .. But I really admire U as my Guru.. I highly appreciate your idealism, your views towards perfection.. I feel lucky That I you have been my teacher at this phase of life, where there is no light and way has been lost.. I remember ur higher values and saying to become a good person in life.. I am actually inspired by ur urge and energy to teach students..

    lots of love and respect for u sir...


  2. My dear Teju,

    Let me confide some things to you. This piece was written for Gunjan Chaurasia, one of my sincerest students from the SIMC batch of 2006 in Pune. But I do not recall her as one of my best students at the time when I taught her editing in Pune. (She has written about those days in a Facebook note.)

    Only much later, after she moved to Dubai, and we were in touch by email and on FB, and I met her first in June 2009 and then again in April 2011, did I get a chance to have long conversations with her.

    It was during one such conversation, when we were out celebrating her 27th birthday on 5 April 2011, at the Royal Express, Dubai's first railway-themed restaurant, that Gunjan asked me, "Sir, what was it like when you were 27?"

    I had not written about that difficult phase of my life. And if it was not for Gunjan asking me the direct question, I do not think I would have had the motivation to write about that dark period.

    Gunjan has seen life, in a way most young people never do. She is a gentle girl, but also brave. For me, she is precious too.

    So I sat down to write out this intimate piece. I have written it in a different format, than the other pieces on my blog. It was not easy for me to disclose the mistakes I made; I made myself vulnerable. But by that same measure, I opened my heart. And that process has been healing.

    My dear Teju, you are also on the way to becoming one of my good students, because you heed my advice to be a good human being.

    So, this "27" piece of mine, when you look at it in a different way, is also written for all those of my students, who have faced up to the trials and tribulations of life, in their own small but heroic ways.

    My dear Teju, in a figurative sense, 'Gunjan' could also be you, or any of my other brave students who have resisted the temptations thrown at them, or have stood up to injustice or suffering.

    This piece is dedicated to all my brave students, like Gunjan, who have come out of the fire, scarred but not beaten; who hold their heads high and smile. For Life is an adventurous journey for those whose spirits are free.

    Peace and love,
    - Joe.